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A rarely-seen Noguchi installation is under threat in Midtown renovation

Tearing Down the Ceiling

A rarely-seen Noguchi installation is under threat in Midtown renovation

In a $400 million renovation of 666 Fifth Avenue, Brookfield Properties and Kohn Pedersen Fox may have to get rid of a special Isamu Noguchi sculpture. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

A one-of-a-kind Isamu Noguchi installation is under threat in Manhattan at 666 Fifth Avenue, an office tower undergoing major renovations by Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF). The New York Times reported that the sculpture, which spans the ceiling of the 41-story building’s twin lobbies, might be dismantled and sold off in parts. Since the interior space isn’t protected by landmark status, preservationists are worried whether the piece has a fighting chance to survive.

The installation, referenced by Noguchi as “a landscape of clouds,” was designed in 1957 and features a series of white aluminum blades backlit from above. Joseph Giovannini of The Times noted that the undulating blades resemble an upside-down ocean. “The entire space glows,” he wrote and, paired with a matching vertical installation in a nearby passageway in which water rippled down and fell into a plant bed, the site once served as “an acoustic oasis in Midtown.”

 

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The Noguchi sculpture, now 63 years old, doesn’t reflect the artist’s original design intent, according to building’s developer Brookfield Properties. The building itself, designed by New York firm Carson & Lundin, has been subject to multiple controversial ownership changes over its lifespan and several serious renovations, the first of which included the lobby and lower floors in 1998. During that $20 million project, it was also anticipated that the Noguchi sculpture would be removed, but the building’s owner, Sumitomo Realty & Development, instead rehabilitated the piece and restored the waterfall mentioned above. 

That wasn’t the last time the artwork was in danger. Before the 2008 recession, Kushner Properties purchased 666 Fifth Avenue in a move to re-establish itself post-family scandal and, years later before Brookfield bought the building, Kushner planned to redevelop the entire site into a 1,400-foot supertall designed by Zaha Hadid Architects

Vertical rendering of terraced glass tower with green roofs
The new 660 Fifth Avenue will feature a drastically different look than its old self thanks to KPF’s glassy facade intervention. (Courtesy KPF)

Brookfield’s aim, like so many developers before it, is to make the building continuously profitable. To do so, the company announced a $400 million renovation project last fall which will not only revamp the internal lobby, but also its public appearance. KPF has proposed replacing the building’s thick aluminum skin with a custom glass curtain wall, as well as adding four outdoor terraces for tenants to use during the warmer months. The renderings, released last October, reveal drastic changes to the six-decade-old structure, as Brookfield intends to reposition it as coveted office space in busy Midtown with sweeping views of the city. 

Internally, KPF plans to upgrade the lobby with amenity and retail space, while also knocking out the columns that previously shortened floor heights and blocked access to daylight. New double-height ceilings and interconnected floors will allow companies to easily maneuver through multiple stories. The new rent for the building, which is now valued at $1.29 billion, will be among the most expensive in New York. 

advertisement of woman standing in front of blue-colored vertical fins in lobby building
Advertisement for Bethlehem Steel of the waterfall sculpture in Progressive Architecture Magazine July 1958 (Courtesy Crossett Library/Flickr)

While many of the changes described here seem promising (including the fact that the building’s iconic name will be changed to 660 Fifth Avenue), the Noguchi problem remains. Brookfield now holds a 99-year lease on the tower and its vision for a modern Midtown lobby doesn’t include the artwork. It determined that the late ’90s renovation, which deconstructed the original lobby’s marble floors and walls, destroyed the integrity of the sculpture’s preservation. But a board member of Docomomo’s New York/Tri-State chapter told The Times that the sculpture is as good as it’s going to get:

“You already have this strong, creative treatment of the walls and the ceiling and you can’t expect to come up with something nearly as artistically effective again,” said John Morris Dixon. “Why risk it when you’ve got it already? The lobby is a great asset that gives a high degree of individuality to the building.” 

Brookfield and KPF plan to complete the entire renovation by 2023. Representatives of the Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum said that it will do everything possible to make sure the artwork is still there when all is said and done.